Modern conflicts, including those in Afghanistan and Iraq, have presented many new challenges for Australian Defence Force (ADF) members and their families, both during active service and transitioning to civilian life.

Once home, a concerning proportion of ex-service personnel are struggling with mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and traumatic brain injury. Research shows that the transition to civilian life is particularly difficult – three times more ADF veterans have reported high levels of psychological distress compared to the general Australian population. Over 20 per cent of recently transitioned members have thought about, planned or attempted suicide the past 12 months.

The pressure on veterans’ families is immense. Partners of veterans often step into the role of carer, in turn also having an increased likelihood of developing mental health conditions. Recognising and responding to mental health issues for those who support veterans is vital if the medical community is to effectively address the full consequences of deployment.

With funding from Medibank’s ‘Mental Health & Wellbeing Fund’, researchers at the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation (GMRF) have been able to embark on a project to determine the effectiveness of ‘Mental Health First Aid’ (MHFA) training for family members supporting a veteran with a mental health condition.

Medibank Group Executive of Healthcare & Strategy, Dr Andrew Wilson said he was looking forward to seeing the results of this project.

“The fund was launched this year to support the mental health of all Australians, with focus for 2018 on the wellbeing of ex-Defence personnel and their families. The Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation was one of the first organisations we partnered with. We believe their work will have lasting and positive outcomes for veterans and their loved ones.”

This Australian-developed educational training, empowers the lay person to approach, support and refer individuals in mental health distress, by improving knowledge and attitudes surrounding mental health conditions. A better understanding of mental health and where to turn for professional help, is a vital component in providing assistance for others, as well as monitoring one’s own psychological health.

The MHFA training program has been used effectively in a number of military populations, as well as in civilian populations, including emergency workers, high school teachers, and members of rural farming communities. These cohorts work in situations of high stress or exposure to trauma and can experience high levels of workplace stress, reporting similar struggles with mental health crises.

Results from using MHFA training in these communities have shown decreases in participant’s negative attitudes and increases in supportive behaviours, including increased knowledge of referral strategies.  GMRF’s aim with this project is that ‘Mental Health First Aid Training’ will prove equally effective for the community of veterans’ families.

The hope is that participants will learn strategies to approach a person in distress, to begin a discussion of mental health treatment options, as well as build participants’ confidence in discussing suicide and suicidal thoughts with a person in distress.

The persistent stigma, lack of knowledge, and negative attitudes toward treatment have previously been the most significant barriers to veterans seeking support for mental health. With the high rates of untreated behavioural health needs among veterans and their families, GMRF is proud to work with the Medibank ‘Mental Health & Wellbeing Fund’ to identify effective programs for assisting returned-service personnel and their families to access effective care.